Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan said in an interview Tuesday night that if he’s elected House minority leader next week and Democrats don’t take back the majority in 2018, he won’t run again for a second term.
“This is about winning. If we’re not winning then we shouldn’t keep people in their jobs,” the seven-term congressman told Roll Call, explaining his decision to challenge Nancy Pelosi for her long-held leadership post. “If we don’t win the House back in two years, I won’t run. That just needs to be the standard.”
House Democrats are coming off four straight election losses; they lost their majority in 2010 and failed to recapture it in 2012, 2014 and 2016. This year, widely expected gains didn’t materialize, and Republicans will have at least a 239-194 edge in the new Congress.
“If you want to boil it down, it’s no fun,” Ryan said. “It’s no fun losing. It’s no fun being in the minority.”
House Democrats will elect their leadership team by secret ballot on Nov. 30.
Ryan, 43, represents the 13th District in northeastern Ohio. His constituents in Rust Belt towns like Youngstown and Akron are the types of voters Democrats failed to gain traction with during the just-concluded election cycle. Ryan believes he can win them back.
“I know how to talk to them,” Ryan said, explaining that he thinks he can “be effective in pulling them back into the fold, [or] at least play a role in doing that.”
Ryan won re-election while his constituents also backed Republican President-elect Donald Trump, he said. His ticket-splitting success story is one other House Democrats will need to replicate in 2018 if they want to take back the majority.
Ryan said Democrats in 2016 did not do well at having a focused economic message. He said plans to develop one and to aggressively promote it in the media, including on outlets like Fox News, Fox Business and CNBC, and on “The Hugh Hewitt Show,” which have a lot of independent and moderate viewers or listeners.
“You can’t just go on MSNBC; that’s not going to work,” said Ryan, who plans to appear on TV a lot more than Pelosi has. “We’re not even competing on some of these news stations that [have] some of the most popular shows going.”
Ryan said he won’t go it alone. He wants to leverage the talents of his colleagues, especially newer members whose capabilities he says have been underused.
“I’m very collaborative,” Ryan said. “I like to bring everybody in and I like to listen and give people responsibilities — as opposed to maybe the kind of concentration of power that we have right now.”
Building a team
To that end, Ryan has proposed a series of changes to make the Democratic Caucus more inclusive. The key to winning, he said, is “building a strong team and getting everyone engaged.”
Among Ryan’s suggestions is restructuring the Democratic Steering Committee, which selects committee leaders, and the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, which is responsible in part for messaging.
He would also create an elected leadership post for members who have served three terms or less; make the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairmanship an elected position; add regional vice chairs; and add vice ranking member slots on committees.
“We’ve totally influenced her by pushing this stuff out here,” Ryan said. “This comes out of conversations we’ve had with a lot of younger members, newer members that are very frustrated with the current state of affairs.”
Ryan knows he’s the underdog in this race, but he believes he has a shot.
“I want everybody to know that I’m taking this very seriously — that I’m running to win,” he said.
Pelosi, however, doesn’t seem to believe that will happen. When she announced that she was running for election, she said she had already locked up the support of two-thirds of the caucus.
Ryan doesn’t think those numbers will hold when the caucus votes.
“I would say maybe she did [have two-thirds] at that point, when no one was in the race,” he said. “But I don’t know that’s the case right now.”
Ryan declined to say how many members have pledged to support him but described the number as “well above anything I thought I’d ever get.”
So far, only two members have publicly endorsed Ryan: Reps. Kathleen Rice of New York and Ed Perlmutter of Colorado. But Ryan said he will have more members publicly announcing their support in the next 24 hours or so.
Ryan said the goal is to release statements from members of key caucuses that will signal how broad his support is.
“Obviously, people are hesitant to come out publicly because they like Nancy and they respect her,” he said.
Ryan, who’s never held a leadership position before, could have run for other positions within the caucus to accomplish his goals. He said he chose the top spot because it will define the party with a Republican in the White House.
“I think it needs to be somebody that comes from the area of the country that I come from and understands the voters that we need to get,” Ryan said.
The lone wolf
As the only member currently challenging a sitting member of leadership, Ryan looks somewhat like a lone wolf without a pack to follow him. He said that’s not really the case.
“Look, this is not easy stuff,” he said, adding that challenging current leadership is “risky” and can go against a members’ personal interest.
“But what the hell are we here for? We’re not here to collect a paycheck; we’re here to make a difference,” he said.
Ryan said he had a lot of conversations with members he thought may run against Pelosi, but “no one stepped up.”
One member who had been pressured to run was New York Rep. Joseph Crowley, the current vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus. Crowley ultimately opted to run for caucus chairman, a position to which he has long been the heir apparent.
Ryan said he would not have run against Crowley. And although his announcement hit inboxes minutes after Crowley announced his intentions, Ryan said, “There wasn’t a whole lot of coordination.”
However, he added, he’s had a lot of private conversations. “In the abstract,” he said, “I’m the president of the Joe Crowley fan club.”
Skeptics have suggested Ryan is only running to raise his profile for potential future campaigns, such as running for governor. But he vehemently denies that. He said that he’s upset a lot of people, including some of his close friends, to challenge Pelosi.
“That’s not something you do just to raise your profile,” Ryan said.
There is a precedent in Congress for members with the surname Ryan vaulting into leadership without having meticulously charted that path.
Tim Ryan said he saw Speaker Ryan in the hall the other day and they shared a laugh about what would happen if there were two Ryans in leadership. The Ohio Democrat said they already get each other’s mail and people mistakenly call one office looking for the other Ryan.
As to how they would deal with that confusion if he were elected, Ryan said, “I’m not sure. I just know there would be a lot of happy people in Ireland.”